Innovating the innovators

Social innovation. Sounds good, right? The words conjure up images of positive change, better outcomes and a government that is more responsive to the diverse needs of today’s citizens. But what does it mean exactly? Different definitions abound, but it basically comes down to new ways to tackle the big social challenges that deliver value not just to the individual but to society as a whole.

It’s a concept and approach which has won the support of vocal champions around the world, including Martin Stewart-Weeks, who has been an active participant in, and observer of, the Australian political scene for several decades. “My own definition is that it’s about the search for new solutions to social needs,” he says. “Global warming, poverty reduction and improving education are just some of the challenges it can make a big contribution to. We’re getting better at it, but there is a long way to go. The truth is we need to get much better and more systematic at it – in Australia and beyond.”

Spreading the word about social innovation

Stewart-Weeks wears many hats. He currently maintains an eclectic portfolio of paid, pro bono and government advisory work across the mix of innovation, technology and policy sectors, including serving as board director of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). It’s an organisation which has quickly taken firm root in the country’s body politic as the hub of people-centred innovation.

“Our three main areas of interest are our flagship – families and family interventions – and the other two are disability and ageing,” he explains. “Our approach is founded on the belief that social innovation is based on people and human potential, and so we use codesign methods in order to create solutions which are specifically tailored to their needs.”

Although TACSI’s efforts have met with pockets of considerable success, Stewart-Weeks says that this is exactly the problem – they remain “pockets” rather than systemic change. “My perspective, as a director and someone who works on the government side, is that there remain pretty big barriers working against social innovation as a reflexive way of thinking and working in government,” he admits.  “The very word ‘innovation’ has become a bit of an icon you can hang around your neck.”

He believes that the resistance to broader change stems from the way structures and systems have been designed – the architecture and mindset of public servants are often not conducive to this new way of working. “If you really want to get under the skin of society’s problems and engage deeply with the people who experience those problems, it demands a way of working that government finds quite hard to handle,” he says. “It requires policymakers to be more like social anthropologists – which mostly is not a natural way to work if you are a relatively mainstream, traditional public servant. So often inside the big institutions of the bureaucracy, life can seem to be about structures and funding and accountability and KPIs.”

He’s speaking from experience. Having moved to Australia from the UK in the 1980s, Stewart-Weeks has worked in a variety of policy and management roles in the public sector, including chief of staff to a minister in the federal government and with the New South Wales Cabinet Office.

“What TACSI has been doing for the past five years or so has been to say to those attempting to tackle challenging social problems is that trying things in a new way can lead to better outcomes,” he continues. “The trouble is that you can often get a department or ministry to be willing to take this new approach forward for a while or on an experimental basis, but having these methods adopted system-wide is still some way off. When you’re tackling the challenge, for example, of helping families and kids to flourish, the first instinct should not be ‘let’s have a workshop’ or ‘let’s have a look at the data’. Maybe it would be more helpful to spend a few weeks in the suburbs talking to 15 different families about what they need and the kind of life they would like to lead. Unfortunately the system, as it is currently set up, so often makes it harder than it should be for public servants to do that.”

Breaking down the barricades

He is also keen to stress that he doesn’t blame public servants for the slow rate of progress. Rather, he says that it is down to a combination of factors, not least the fact that the public service is the target of reform from numerous campaigning communities, all of which passionately believe theirs is the secret to a brighter tomorrow – if only government would wholeheartedly commit to their agenda.

Stewart-Weeks, though, is sympathetic to the object of their attention. “You can never underestimate a certain amount of cynicism and exhaustion which comes with being targeted time and time again,” he says. “At TACSI, the way we try and get over this is by spending as much time as we can actually with public servants – as members of their team on these projects. We have a whole strand at TACSI about capability-building, but the problem is you can work with these folks – mainly frontline staff – but there tends to be a point towards the end, after they have learned these new skills, where they start to worry if these new skills and methods will be sanctioned when they return to their day jobs.”

Of particular interest is the sense that this is by no means confined to those promoting social innovation. Those who push open government, for example, or digital government, have experienced a similar reaction. True believers all, it turns out to be much tougher to make their ideas mainstream – despite what is often a lifetime devoted to that end.

“This is something we have regularly discussed around the TACSI board and whether we need to invest in our own skills base and find people who understand the ‘dark arts’ of institutional change,” reveals Stewart-Weeks. “I do sometimes worry that we are like very high energy missiles that launch ourselves at pretty impregnable structures before bouncing off with exhaustion, having made a marginal impact. I’m being a bit unfair – there is real evidence where we have moved the dial – but it’s still not as architectural or systemic as it needs to be.”

That said, there may be some broader movement on the horizon. Martin Parkinson – the head of Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and titular head of the Federal Public Service – used his end of year speech in December to praise his staff but also to warn that more reform is needed.

“It was a speech of two halves,” says Stewart-Weeks. “The first half was congratulatory, as you’d expect, but the second was a remarkably blunt critique of the deep resistance to change. He hasn’t been there that long – Malcolm Turnbull brought him in – but I found it intriguing that he would devote so much time to saying that the public service can often be its own worst enemy when it comes to resisting change and not trying new approaches and methods. It comes back to how profoundly deep these cultures and structures go – it’s a DNA problem.”

Better together

Cracking the code to these issues will clearly not come easy, but Stewart-Weeks remains hopeful that it can be done, starting first with addressing the deep divide between policy and delivery, which still resides in the Australian system. “Over the past 30 years, we have built deep structural divisions between the people who think and the people who do,” he says. “There is still the sense that people dream up policy with little or no input from the frontline. But here is where social innovation can be very powerful, because it can really help bridge this divide by seeing the policy problem from the delivery perspective, right from the start.”

Such optimism is tempered by the knowledge that systemic change is tough. As he notes, these big systems have in many ways been set up not to change. They speak to the desire for stability and predictability.

“It is just very, very hard to shift big systems – that’s all there is to it,” he concludes. “The policy profession has been built up for 150 years into this position that sometimes feels like invincible omniscience, and so the notion that others can be involved is something they don’t always look favourably on. We need to become better not only at institutional change but also at working more in alliance with other communities in order to bring about the change we seek.”

For all the difficulties, though, Stewart-Weeks is convinced about how best to shift underlying systems and structures: a persistent search for new tools and methods to apply a people-focused approach to problem-solving is the way to go. And it’s to that endeavour that social innovation may in the end make its biggest contribution.



  • Powered by the people. Nicholas Gruen is spearheading Australia’s charge for life-changing innovations. He tells us about spreading solutions far and wide to those most in need
  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark’s MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking
  • Transformation from the grassroots. Driven by the belief that the best solutions to challenges can be found in communities across the country, the Obama administration created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to find new ways to solve old problems. Here, Dan Vogel talks to the Office’s first director, Sonal Shah, about her experiences in reshaping American government
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start
  • Christian Bason: Helping governments be different by design. Christian Bason is not one for the status quo. He takes time out from running the Danish Design Centre to tell us about a new way of creating policy
  • Laws from the lab. Stephanie Wade is not one for the quiet life. As director of the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel and Management, she is driving design-led innovation across government – and having quite an impact…
  • Lab lessons. Andrea Siodmok and her team at the UK’s Policy Lab are blazing a trail across the civil service. She tells us about designing new services around people’s experiences